by John Goodchild
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018
There is a world of difference between the one God of the monotheist and the gods of the polytheist.
A polytheistic God is usually partial, having favourites, and cannot offer a basis for an overarching morality. When the first Christians experienced Jesus as God they did not want to think of him as a second God. They could use the idea of Jesus as the Word of God - the expression of the mind of God in human life. If we express what is in our mind we do not empty our mind. God was not diminished or changed by the incarnation and Christ as the Word made flesh could be said to have existed from the beginning of time.
However, Word as a title lacked warmth and the preferred way of speaking about the relation of the earthly Jesus to God became that of a son to his own father which was grounded in the intimacy of Christ’s prayer to God. As God’s only beloved Son he did his heavenly father’s work and shared his royal status.
However, it was thought God could not change, so there was not a point at which he had a son and became a father. Instead it was said that God begot his son before time began. The problem was caused by having a static rather than a dynamic idea of perfection. With static perfection, if God is perfect and then changes he is no longer perfect so God cannot change. But if we thinking of perfection as dynamic, i.e. God shows his perfection in the way he responds to different situations, the problem is overcome. God is not unchangeable but constant. His eternal love and purpose do not change by having a son when the time is ripe and right. When we describe God as a father we do not mean that he is literally a father with a penis, but that he is like a father in his care for us. In the same way, if we describe God as a person we do not mean that he is literally a person but that he is like a person because he has personal qualities.
In Hebrew poetry, the meaning of a sentence is repeated using different words. For example, in Psalm 51:11 we hear:
Do not take me away from your presence, do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
And in Luke 1:35 Mary is told:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you.
So the Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God. The Spirit is not in addition to the Son but makes the Son present for us. In the Acts, following Christ’s ascension, the Spirit is active in the Church. The Spirit gave the disciples the presence and power of Christ.
In the Greek speaking church the word prosopon was used to describe the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. The word meant face or appearance - a reference to the three ways people had experienced the one God. Tragically the Latin speaking church rendered prosopon as persona, so presenting a major handicap to our understanding. It is interesting that Augustine of Hippo, though not knowing Greek, resisted this development. In his great book On the Trinity he says that man was made in the image of God and so looks for a way of understanding the trinity by looking at the working of a single man’s mind rather than through the fellowship of three men.